World's best airlines

Everett Potter


Buckling your airplane seat belt and weight-loss personality Richard Simmons aren't things you'd necessarily think go together. But if you flew on Air New Zealand in the recent past, that's who may have video-instructed you how to buckle up.

Great companies always think outside the box, and Air New Zealand is no exception. In the most recent Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards survey, the Kiwi airline came in No. 2. And while readers didn't specifically rank in-flight entertainment, ANZ's fresh, amusing spin on the standard safety video surely gave passengers a memorable impression of the airline.

The factors our readers did vote on, across 76 global airlines: cabin comfort, in-flight service, customer service, value, and food. No one was surprised to see Singapore Airlines topping the list; they've been the No. 1 airline for the past 17 years. And they must be doing something right—they didn't even have Richard Simmons entertaining their passengers.

No. 1 Singapore Airlines

For the 17th year in a row—ever since T+L inaugurated the World’s Best Awards—Singapore Airlines has been readers’ overall favorite. This year, the airline came out on top in every category: cabin comfort, food, in-flight service, customer service, and value. The 32-inch seat pitch in economy class helps, as do the flight attendants, famous for their above-and-beyond service and sarong and kebaya uniforms. Bedtime turndown service is even part of the flying experience for those with pockets deep enough to book the A380 first-class suites that feature sliding doors, 23-inch TVs, and stand-alone beds hand-stitched by master Italian craftsmen Poltrona Frau.

No. 2 Air New Zealand

The Kiwi carrier has been steadily climbing up the ranks of the world’s best airlines. Two years ago, Air New Zealand ranked seventh, and last year, it was fourth. Cabin comfort, food, and especially improved in-flight service vaulted it into the No. 2 position this year. T+L readers felt that the airline’s value had improved during the past year, and its innovative OneUp program, which allows you to bid for an upgrade seven days before you fly internationally, beats paying through the nose for business or first. Another popular innovation: cuddle class, an economy row of three seats that can convert to a bed.

No. 3 Emirates

Emirates has slipped slightly from No. 2, a spot it held for the past two years. While the airline maintained steady scores for cabin comfort, in-flight service, and food, readers demoted both the airline’s customer service and value scores this year. Still, there’s nothing wrong about coming in third. And forward-thinking innovations like the airline’s signature Shower Spa in first class should keep the airline up to speed with the very best.

No. 4 Korean Air

Korean Air vaulted up the list from last year’s ninth place, thanks to major improvements in readers’ perceptions of in-flight service and food, as well as cabin comfort and value. Tastier Western, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes have certainly helped. But, taking a page out of Singapore Airlines’ book, it’s the improved level of service that has brought this airline into the rarefied ranking of our top five carriers.

No. 5 Cathay Pacific Airways

Cathay Pacific went up the list from seventh place last year. The airline worked hard and offered improvements in every area, according to our readers, but especially in the areas of value and food. Leave it to Hong Kong–based Cathay to be among the first to have rice cookers on board. Each seat is outfitted with power outlets and iPod and USB ports—not to mention a 32-inch seat pitch in economy class—and these special touches keep the airline highly ranked for cabin comfort.

No. 6 Asiana Airlines

Asiana is the comeback kid this year. The carrier fell to No. 13 in our 2011 rankings, but in 2010, it was No. 6. What’s the story? According to T+L readers, Asiana has upgraded its cabin comfort, in-flight service, customer service, and value. It fell a little short in its food ranking, but it was so much better in the other critical areas that it’s firmly back in our top 10. Now that Asiana, like its formidable Asian peers, offers suites, it’s clearly a contender.

No. 7 Virgin America

Virgin America remains the highest-ranking U.S. airline in our survey, despite slipping two slots in the overall rankings from last year. (It holds up even better among the survey’s domestic rankings with a No. 1 rank in every category.) The Red touch-screen system that allows you to order snacks and drinks, shop, and give back to fight cancer or to offset your carbon footprint is a prime example of how Virgin America is truly in step with the expectations of 21st-century travelers.

No. 8 Qatar Airways

Ranked No. 11 in 2011, Qatar has made a move into the top 10, although not yet back to the No. 3 ranking it earned from readers in 2010 or 2009’s No. 2 spot. Readers did give kudos to improvements in the airline’s in-flight service and to welcome changes in cabin comfort, namely the 32-inch seat pitch. Hiring celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa to oversee the in-flight menu is another crowd-pleaser.

No. 9 Virgin Atlantic Airways

Virgin Atlantic ranked eighth last year and could use a little maintenance in the eyes of T+L readers. The airline fell a bit short in every category this year, but most especially when it came to food, in-flight service, and value. Even cabin comfort was found to be less comforting this year compared to last. That said, the airline still made it into the survey’s top 10—and continues to make headlines for its cheeky spirit. Earlier this year, for instance, Upper Class passengers had the distinct pleasure of drinks served with ice cubes crafted to resemble Sir Richard Branson’s head.

No. 10 Thai International Airways

Ensconced at No. 10, as it was in 2011, Thai Airways pretty much maintained the status quo, according to our survey, although readers did feel that the airline offered more value than it had in the past. Thai has certainly been keeping up with other quality carriers, installing niceties like Audio Visual on Demand (AVOD). But since most of its flights are within Asia or to Europe (with North American service only to Los Angeles), it lacks the visibility of the top-dog Asian airlines. Regardless, our readers think it deserves top 10 status.

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